Exploring the Evolving Role of Research Managers and Administrators

Reflections on INORMS 2023 in Southern Africa
Members of the INORMS 2023 Pre-Congress Study Tour in front of Nelson Mandela's statue in Pretoria, South Africa Members of the INORMS 2023 Pre-Congress Study Tour in front of Nelson Mandela's statue in Pretoria, South Africa; courtesy Jan Andersen.

As academic research has become more interdisciplinary and globalized during the past few decades, there is a heightened need to ensure research is carried out effectively, ethically, and with both academic and societal relevance. This changing landscape of higher education has led to the emergence of a dedicated profession known as research managers and administrators (RMAs).[1] To capture this evolving field within the higher education sector, I have been co-editing a forthcoming book, The Emerald Handbook of Research Management and Administration Around the World (RMA Handbook). This extensive three-year project has provided me with the opportunity to visit Southern Africa in June to participate in the 9th Congress for the International Network of Research Management Societies (INORMS) that convened in Durban, South Africa. 

Study Tour and International Congress 

INORMS was established in 2001 to unite RMA associations worldwide, fostering collaboration among research support professionals across regions. Its biennial congress serves as a platform for members to address shared challenges and promote awareness for this evolving profession. Before participating in the INORMS 2023 International Congress (Congress), I had the privilege of joining RMAs from Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Slovenia, Spain, and the UK to embark on a week-long study tour. The expedition took us to various universities in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Gaborone, Stellenbosch, Cape Town, and the Western Cape. The diverse itinerary was organized by the European Association of Research Managers and Administrators (EARMA), a member of the INORMS community. The participants were introduced to research operations at a wide range of institutions from large research universities to smaller community-based campuses, including historic institutions and emerging young campuses. These visits and engagement opportunities enriched my understanding of research management in the region as well as opened my eyes to the keen interest of European institutions in partnering with their African counterparts.

Attendees at the Colloquium on "Global Challenges, Research, Innovation, and Impact," hosted by Botswana Open University in Gaborone, Botswana

As RMAs’ roles and responsibilities continue to expand, the discussions during the tour went beyond the technical and logistical aspects of their research support, frequently centering on advancing science and fostering innovation. In Cape Town and Stellenbosch, I witnessed African and European representatives delve into discussions about research integrity and ethics. In Western Cape, the conversation highlighted the issue of social equity. In Gaborone, the tour group engaged in thought-provoking dialogues during the colloquium “Global Challenges, Research, Innovation, and Impact,” organized by Botswana Open University. This event emphasized raising awareness about SDGs as guideposts for policy and research priorities and promoting research support for the increasing global collaboration. The discussion led to a joint statement that captured the vision of Botswana’s education leaders and the insights of tour members. (Photo above: Attendees at the Colloquium on “Global Challenges, Research, Innovation, and Impact,” hosted by Botswana Open University in Gaborone, Botswana; courtesy Jan Andersen.)

Following the study tour, the Congress took place, hosted by the Southern African Research and Innovation Management Association (SARIMA), which was established in the early 2000s to promote research and innovation management in Southern Africa. The four-day conference consisted of four keynote speeches, nine workshops, 19 panels, 12 presentation sessions, 12 collaborative learning sessions as well as 84 poster sessions. According to SARIMA, the event attracted over 550 RMAs, scholars, and policy experts from 53 countries.[2] Along with the co-editors of the upcoming RMA Handbook, I had the opportunity to serve on a panel where we shared key findings from our study of RMAs with doctoral degrees and discuss how the profession can increase its visibility.

Gained Insights and Future Prospects

Participating in the study tour and engaging with Congress has helped me gain valuable insights and prospects about the field’s future.

  • Equity Awareness: One significant insight was a heightened awareness of the role equity issues play in research. During the Congress, Dr. Catherine Kyobutungi, the executive director of the African Population and Health Research Center, delivered a thought-provoking keynote, shedding light on the inequitable dynamics in research partnerships between high-income countries and low or middle-income countries (LMICs). She argued that LMICs are often limited to data collection, without meaningful contributions to research hypotheses and data analysis that could lead to senior authorship. This creates disparities in leadership roles and academic recognition, impacting LMICs’ potential in science and innovation. Furthermore, ensuring equity in research operations is crucial for driving impactful outcomes. During our conversation, Dr. Simon Gray, Director of Research Development at the University of Bristol, U.K., emphasized the importance of ensuring diverse viewpoints among RMAs and of implementing more equitable approaches to research administration. During the site visits, this viewpoint was reaffirmed through conversations about the societal impact of innovation and academic research. These insights would inspire me to adopt a more comprehensive approach to diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) issues, broadening my perspective as both a researcher and educator. 

  • Agility and Inclusivity: Several chapters in the upcoming RMA Handbook emphasize the importance of soft skills such as communication, collaboration, and cross-cultural understanding in the realm of research management. My interactions with fellow tour members and Congress participants further underscored these insights; I witnessed the remarkable agility and inclusive approach of RMAs. Our tour group consisted of 17 individuals from ten different countries, each bringing their unique expertise and career trajectories to the table. RMAs viewed diversity as a strength and an opportunity, constantly nurturing connections and networks. Personally, I benefited immensely from their inclusive approach. Although I was the only researcher on the study tour, the group warmly embraced me, always involving me in discussions and conversations during our visits, meals, and bus rides. Further, I observed how effortlessly RMAs connected and collaborated on shared issues, despite their diverse backgrounds. This experience would inspire me to seek collaborative opportunities both within and outside Stanford as I develop new courses.

  • Need for Further Research: This experience has reinforced my belief in the importance of conducting more research studies on topics relevant to research administration.[3] Many dedicated RMAs have expressed concerns regarding the importance of increasing the visibility of their profession and raising awareness about cross-national collaborations. Unlike faculty members, who primarily undergo tenure evaluations based on individual performance, RMAs inherently play a role in fostering collaboration across departments, institutions, and even nations. Consequently, studying research administrators offers a unique perspective that illuminates the broader societal implications of research efforts that extend beyond institutional boundaries. During a keynote address, Professor Cheryl de la Rey, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, urged RMAs to be aware of the social importance of their work and encouraged for increased ‘research on research.’

The invaluable insights and awareness I gained from my participation in the INORMS events will undoubtedly shape my perspectives as I continue developing curricula and conducting research at SPICE. 


I want to express my sincere appreciation to several individuals who made this experience possible. Dr. Therina Theron, INORMS 2023 Congress Chairperson, and her dedicated team from SARIMA ensured the success of the event through their meticulous preparation. My heartfelt thank you goes out to the fellow tour participants, Gabi Arrigoni, Jan Andersen, Jag Pabla, Johanna Roodt, Liam McKervey, Mimi Urbanc, Nikki Kernaghan, Olga Roig-Herrera, Patrizia Rampioni, Rūta Žmuidzinaitė, Sidney Engelbrecht, Simon Glasser, Simon Gray, Stefan Apitz, Vanda Baloh, and Wendy Mcloone, for their generous sharing of their knowledge and camaraderie. Special recognition is owed to Jan, whose extensive local network made our site visits possible. Johanna’s efforts ensured the seamless execution of our itinerary. I am immensely grateful to the numerous hosts at Southern African institutions for their warm and gracious welcome during our visits. Finally, I wish to extend my gratitude to Dr. Gary Mukai for granting me this invaluable opportunity.

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